The Strange Unreality of Writing a Novel

Paul Doiron here—

I have spent the better part of the past year writing a novel titled MASSACRE POND, and I am nearing the end. As always happens to me when I am finishing a book, I find myself growing a little spacey. I am so focused on the writing that I begin to neglect other aspects of my life. I stop going to the gym. My diet—which is usually pretty healthy—suddenly starts including slices of variety-store pizza and cans of Red Bull. I forget to pay bills. Emails pile up in my in box. (If you have sent me an unanswered letter, I apologize, but I promise to get back to you.) My wife throws up here hands and begins planning shopping and birding outings that don’t include me.

It isn’t this way at the beginning of a book. I easily compartmentalize my writing life and my other life. Little by little, though, something changes. Writing a novel involves creating an entire fictional world. Somewhere during the writing process, I begin to spend more time in the world of my imagination and less time in the actual three-dimensional world.

I am evidently not alone in going through this transformation. Tess Gerritsen has written about how her personality changes when she’s in the middle of a book:

For the past few months, my every waking moment was overshadowed by anxiety about finishing my next book. I worked seven days a week, and into the nights. I practically lived in my office, scarcely stepping out of the house. I let the email pile up. I didn’t write any Christmas cards. Any holiday shopping I did do was while sitting at my computer screen (thank you, Amazon, for being a one-stop shopping mall for everything from bread makers to telescopes!)

Then, last week, after completing the fourth draft of ICE COLD, I finally got up the courage to press “send”. For better or worse, off it went to editor and agent. It was only one day late.

For the rest of the day, I wandered around the house feeling lost. I cleared piles of papers off my desktop and discovered unopened mail from seven months ago. (“Sorry for the tardy reply” sounds pretty lame at this late date.) I tackled the emails in my in-box. I invited my mom for dinner. I finally wrote Christmas cards. I watched some mindless TV. Mostly, I just felt relieved.

Writing can be a schizophrenic existence. There’s life before delivery” and “after delivery”.

Schizophrenic, indeed. People are always curious about the writer’s process, but this aspect of our existences is hard to explain. If we are lucky, our loved ones stop trying to make sense of it and simply accept these interludes of spaciness.

I keep thinking there must be some well-balanced authors out there. It seems unlikely that all novelists experience these fugue states during the composition of their books. I’m not sure if I envy them or not.

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7 Responses to The Strange Unreality of Writing a Novel

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Paul, you and Tess have expressed exactly how I feel this week. And now I have to dig out, pay the piper (and pay my bills). I feel like I stepped out of a play to spend a little time in my dressing room, and now I’ve come back and everyone is still saying their lines and hitting their marks, and I’m wondering–how can that be? And how can I ever catch up?

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    • Paul Doiron says:

      Barb: It’s certainly an odd experience, and for me it only happens halfway through the process. Sometimes what I think of as writer’s block is an inability to submerge yourself in your work. You can’t push through the surface and dive down into the depths. Once you do, though, it takes a lot of effort to rise back into the air. (It sounds like I’m describing a deep sea diver trying to avoid the bends, doesn’t it?)

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  2. My period of obsession is toward the end of the rough draft. Once I have something on paper to revise (yes, on paper, since I scribble on a printout of the entire book), I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’m much more “normal.” To avoid drowning in my work it also helps to convince myself that my deadline is a month or two earlier than it really is, so I always have more time than I think I do, if that makes any sense. One warning, though. That the novel might be ready early should not be shared with editors. If they know it is possible to have the book early, they tend to want it early. Kind of defeats the purpose of a useful self-deception.

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  3. Kate Cone says:

    Hi Paul: Thanks for sharing your process. I have been trying to finish the novel I’m working on for years. There are periods of time where I “dip in,” feel the delicious abandon of that fictional world, as when I’m preparing for a reading from the piece. I am psyched after sharing the story with an audience, vow to finish, then allow myself to get drawn out of that world. All the things you put off are things I let “get me,” so I think it’s good for you to focus the way you do and get the project DONE. I’m taking some wisdom from your essay and get out of the kitchen (my one big procrastination station) and into my study more to delve into the lives of my characters.

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  4. Paul: I liken the experience to having a love affair, complete with its mad, exhilarating passionate obsession that drives out all other thoughts, as well as its deep lows and insecurities and fears–followed by a much-needed recovery period filled with mixed feelings!

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  5. Peg Herring says:

    So true! My characters are more real to me than people I know. (After all, I feel what they feel and know exactly what they think.) When their story is over, it’s like I am leaving one world to go back to that crazy one where I’m not in control and no one has to do what I say.

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    • Kate Cone says:

      NIce observation, Peg. I too love the world of my characters and love reading aloud to a live audience. There is a Buddhist saying, “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”

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